What We Believe: Foundations
Exodus 3: 1–14
This month and the next we’re looking at basic beliefs of the Christian faith. The outline we’re using in order to do that is the outline of the Apostles’ Creed, which is the oldest summary of biblical doctrine the church has. We’re just following that outline. Today we come to God. The Apostles’ Creed goes, “I believe in God.”
If you’re going to preach a sermon from the Bible on God, the first question that comes up is, “Where in the world do you go, since the whole Bible is about God?” For us this afternoon, we will go to Exodus 3:1-14. Let’s read.
Most people believe in God in the world. They believe in the existence of a God, but they don’t know him personally. Moses believed in God up to this point, but it was really at the burning bush that he came to see who God was and encountered him, met God. Didn’t just know about God but came to meet God. That’s why several commentators on the book of Exodus say this is Moses’ conversion experience.
So let’s see what this famous story of the burning bush tells us about God. The central metaphor is fire, because God decides to appear as fire. He could have appeared as anything, but by deciding to appear as fire in the burning bush, that metaphor is going to tell us these things. It’s going to tell us that God is a real God and can be known and he is a God who seeks and sends.
God is a real God and can be known.
We live in the City, where we constantly hear people say, “I don’t like to think of God like this. I like to think of God like that.” It’s very clear that most people believe they can believe in God as they want to believe in God, that they are able to basically have the right to construct their own religious beliefs.
I don’t know what you believe about God. This text is saying there’s a real God, a God who is there,
a God who you don’t create,
a God who’s untamed and
you can’t domesticate and use for your own purposes.
Now there are a couple of ways the text gets that across. One is with the fire. When God appears in a burning bush he appears as a fire, but not like any other fire. Notice what it says in verse 2.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.” It’s repeated. It says, “3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”.
Right off the bat, this shows us that though God is appearing as fire, it’s not like a fire that anybody has ever seen before or since.
Fire is dependent on fuel. As long as there’s fuel there can be fire, but when there’s no more combustible fuel the fire goes out.
But this fire is not dependent on fuel. This fire is not dependent on anything. This fire has the power of its own being within it. We don’t know of anything in the world like that, and that’s the point.
The other way the text gets this across is in the name. In verse 13 & 14, when Moses says,
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
Essentially, when Moses says, “What is your name?” God gives Moses simply the Hebrew verb to be. Basically, what God is saying is, “Tell them being itself has sent you.” The fire that is not dependent on anything but is self-existent, that has the power of its own existence within it.
That fire, along with this name, is God’s way of saying,
I have no beginning. I have no end, because I depend on nothing.
Nothing caused me. I caused everything.
I depend on nothing. Everything depends on me.
Look at the term I Am. This is God’s way of saying,
I always am. There never will be a time in which it could be said about me ‘God was,’ and
There never was a time in which it could have been said about me, ‘He will be.’ ”
God is saying he not only has no ending (“I always will am”) but he has no beginning. He always was am.
What God is saying is, “I am being itself. In a sense, I’m not one more being. I am being itself. Everything depends on me. I depend on nothing.”
Now what are we to make of this? This idea is called the self-existence of God. Sometimes the word is the aseity of God, that God brings himself into existence, keeps himself in existence. In other words, he always was. There was never a time in which he was not. On the one hand, that’s quite a philosophical thing to think about.
2. God can be known.
We have a real God, a God who’s the source of all being, but he’s not simply a kind of force out there. There are plenty of religions that believe in a divine source of all beings. There are many religions that believe he is a kind of great impersonal force, but the Bible is showing us that not only is God real but he’s also not a remote reality. He’s a God who can be known.
In other words, this is telling us we must not just know about God; we must know God. We must not just believe in God with our heads; we must encounter him. Now how does that get across? Again, fire. Think about this. You don’t just know fire is in front of you with your head. You feel it. You experience the fire. It’s not just a mental process. “Oh, I know there’s a fire there.” Rather, you see it. You hear it crackling. You feel it against your skin. You may smell it.
So when you know there’s fire in front of you, you don’t just know it rationally; you know it experientially. That’s how you’re supposed to know God: not just rationally but experientially.
Having said all that, in the end, why does it say in the book of Psalms, “Taste and see that the Lord is good”? Don’t we know the Lord is good? Sure. They’re not saying, “Know that the Lord is good.” We all know it, but I want you to taste it. I want you to sense it in your heart. Or in Ephesians 3, Paul is talking to Christians and he says,
I pray that the Spirit will strengthen you in your inmost being so that you may grasp and know the height, the width, the breadth, and the depth of the love of Christ.
It’s one thing to say, “I believe God is X, Y, Z.” It’s another thing to sense that holiness, to sense that love, to sense that power in your heart. You haven’t met God unless your mind and your heart are engaged. Do you just believe in God or have you “actually met him? He’s a God who can be known. In fact, even here, when Moses says, “Tell me your name …” You say, “What do you mean, ‘Tell me your name’? He’s God.”
Well, the Hebrew word that’s translated God in the Bible is Elohim, and it’s not really a name; it’s a title. The word God tells you what he is, but when he says, “I Am That I Am,” that’s the Hebrew word Yahweh, and that’s who he is. He’s saying, “I’m telling you my name.” If you want to have a personal relationship with somebody.
God is real. He’s the ground of all being, but he is also one who can be known. That leads us to the other two things.
3. God is a God who seeks
Here’s what’s interesting. Notice, for example, that he is seeking Moses. It says in verse 2,
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.
God is drawing Moses in.
4 “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush”. God wants a relationship.
He’s seeking Moses, and yet, even though Moses is attracted and drawn in, there’s the other side.
5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”.
At this, 6 “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
Here’s what we have. We again have the fire, and the fire tells us something else we need to see about God. This is really compelling. The fire is both beautiful and attractive and fatal and dangerous. There are certain situations in which if you don’t get near a fire, you’re going to die. Fire, in one sense, is life-giving, because you need the heat, but if you get too close to the fire it kills you.
Fire is life giving and death dealing at the same time. It’s attractive and dangerous and frightening at the same time. That’s the reason this is so brilliant of God to appear as fire. When he appears as fire, he is showing us who he is.
We can’t live with God, and we can’t live without God. That’s the human condition.
We can’t live without him because we were created for him and we want him,
but at another level, we are broken, we’ve turned away from him, and his very presence is traumatic and fatal.
The Bible repeatedly says the immediate presence of God is fatal to human beings, just like fire.
Moses says, “Show me your glory,” and God says, “I can’t; it’ll kill you.”
Isaiah goes in to see God high and lifted up, and he says, “Woe is me. I am undone. I’m coming apart. I feel like I’m dying.”
God comes down on Mount Sinai and says, “I’m coming down on Mount Sinai …” In fire, by the way, if you remember. He says, “Don’t touch anything, because if you touch the mountain you’ll die.”
It’s the reason the Bible says over and over again flawed human beings cannot exist in the presence of God. The holiness of God is fatal. Well, then, here’s the question. Here you have a God who wants Moses, and a God of compassion. Notice how in verses 7–8 he says,
I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt .
But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you.
He’s seeking Moses, and he loves his people, and he wants to be with Moses, and yet he says, “Do not come near; for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses is scared.
So how can a holy God have a relationship with us? How can Moses draw near to a holy God? Here is why many commentators say if you have actually read all of Genesis and Exodus and then you read this passage … If you put this passage into the context of all of Genesis and Exodus, here’s the real question. The big question is not, “Why is the bush not consumed?” The big question is, “Why isn’t Moses consumed?” How could Moses get that close and not be consumed?”
Here’s the answer. It’s the Angel. Do you see that? It’s actually extremely easy to miss, because you kind of go by it. Verse 2 is a summary sentence. Look at verse 2.
And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.
What’s interesting is that up there it says, “The angel of the Lord was in the bush,” but all through the rest of the passage it says,
The Lord was in the bush.
The Lord spoke to him from the bush.
He was afraid to look on the Lord.
Here’s the question. Was it the angel of the Lord in the bush or was it the Lord in the bush?
There are at least a dozen times in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament, in which this Angel of the Lord shows up. The Angel of the Lord is unlike any other angel. The Angel of the Lord, on the one hand, seems identical to the Lord and, at the same time, seems to be distinct from the Lord.
All through the rest of the Bible you have a lot of other angels, but whenever the other angels show up they speak for the Lord.
The Angel is the mode of deity whereby the Holy God can keep company with sinners. This happens again and again in the Bible.
Alec Motyer essentially says this about the Angel of the Lord:
There is only one other person in the Bible who is both identical with yet distinct from the Lord, one who without abandoning the full essence and prerogatives of deity or diminishing the divine holiness is able to accommodate himself to the company of sinners, and who, while affirming the wrath of God, is yet a supreme display of his outreaching mercy. The Angel of the Lord cannot be understood except as a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ himself.
This is Jesus Christ before he was born as a human being.
John 8: 58 … When Jesus Christ is talking to his critics, he says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” He doesn’t say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” No, no. He’s deliberately invoking this name. He says, “Before Abraham was ever born, I am.” Everybody was amazed. They tried to stone him. They understood what he meant. “I am the Angel who was speaking to Moses from the burning bush.”
In the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ is second in the great I Am, the God of heaven and earth.
4. God is a God who sends.
That leads us just to this. God sends Moses out now, and we can spend some time on what it means to be sent.
We don’t have to look at Moses and see how God changed Moses and made him a person God could use in the world. We actually already have what God says when he says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
Have you read the book of Genesis? When God says, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” here’s what he’s saying.
I work with the most unpromising material.
I took that coward Abraham, I took that dysfunctional father Isaac, I took that schemer con man Jacob, and I made them into great people. I changed the world through them.
I took meek Moses and made him into a leader.
I take Peter and turn him into a rock.
Who knows what I can make of you? Who knows what I could do in the world through you?
You know when Paul says, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels”? When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, that’s the power of God, the Spirit of God in our lives, even though we’re earthen vessels. It’s another way of saying if you believe in Jesus Christ, God through Jesus Christ, your Angel, comes into your life and you’re the burning bush now.
You may not be, humanly speaking, a giant person. You may be just a bush, but it doesn’t matter. If God through his Spirit is burning with the fire of his beauty, love, and power in the center of your life, you’ll become something beautiful. You’ll become something safe. You’ll become something powerful.
God can burn with his uncommon light, holiness, and beauty in the center of your life, and you won’t be consumed by it because of what Jesus Christ did. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to be used like that? Don’t you want to become something like that? Well, then, do what Moses did. “I will go over and see.” I don’t know what that means for everybody in this room, but whatever it means, go over and see.
Our Father, thank you for giving us what we need to understand who you are. You are infinitely great. You are endlessly and infinitely great. We can hardly understand what it means that you have no beginning and no end, that all things have their being in you, but at the same time you are astonishingly personal.
You’re a God we can know. You’re a God we can love, but all because of the merits and the work of Jesus Christ, our Angel, who has made it possible for you to come in and burn in the middle of our hearts and lives with your power and we not be consumed by it.
So we thank you, Father, for all that, and we ask that you would help us to know you better, that you would strengthen our hearts so that we can experience and know you better. Father, everyone in this room needs to give themselves to you, some people for the first time, some people for the tenth time. Help us to do that now. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.”